Keeping watch from the skies: Police unveil two new drones for crowd management, search and rescue

The drones are equipped with heat sensors and cameras to help the police observe crowd movements and pick out suspicious activity. ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH

SINGAPORE - You can run but you cannot hide - not when there are eyes in the sky.

In March last year, a man fled to a forested area to evade a police check along Jalan Bahar in Jurong. He was detained after two hours with the help of a drone that had caught a glimpse of him at a nearby construction site.

Assistant Superintendent Tan Koon Liang, the drone pilot involved in this incident, said: "The drone provided an aerial view and spotted the man loitering in a suspicious area."

ASP Tan, who has flown unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for the police since 2018, added: "Without it, we would have to have more manpower on the ground, so these drones complement the work of our officers."

Weighing 7kg and about 1 sq m in size, the drone used in the operation is one of two latest devices in the police's UAV fleet that were unveiled last Wednesday (Jan 19) at the Home Team Tactical Centre.

Deputy Superintendent of Police Sum Tuck Meng, officer in charge of UAV operations, said at the event that police drones are used in four main types of operations - area observation, police presence, enforcement, and search and rescue.

Due to operational secrecy, further details such as the UAVs' top speed, fleet size and other specifications are kept confidential.

The 7kg drone, which does not have a name, is a specialist in crowd management and security events. It is also equipped with heat sensors and cameras to help the police observe crowd movements and pick out suspicious activity.

It was most recently seen hovering over Marina Bay during New Year's Eve to monitor the crowd and deter troublemakers amid the festivities.

The drone's thermal imaging sensors provided a bird's-eye shot of the tourist spot, with silhouettes of crowds highlighted in white on a screen, making any change in behaviour - such as abrupt dispersals or gatherings - obvious.

Other payloads can be attached to a customised rack fitted to its hull, such as a spotlight for better visibility and a speaker to broadcast alerts, such as warnings and safety advisories.

Red-and-blue police blinkers will be used during public patrols to announce the presence of the authorities.

The police also unveiled a smaller 1kg drone, about 30 sq cm in size, which is useful in tight spaces, takes less time to set up, and is more nimble. It can be fitted with similar technology as its bigger brother, but on a smaller scale.

The smaller 1kg drone, about 30 sq cm in size, is useful in tight spaces, takes less time to set up, and is more nimble. ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH

DSP Sum said these drones will go a long way to reduce uncertainty and enhance the police's capabilities during operations.

Separately, the police added: "Officers can only see in their line of sight, but with drones, anomalies can be seen much earlier than if on the ground."

The police also mentioned a search-and-rescue operation in March last year where the 7kg drone was used to locate a hiker in Clementi Forest. Once he was found by officers, the drone helped to identify an exit route amid the dense vegetation.

The drones are flown by UAV pilots under the Aerial Response Team commissioned last year. The police said the pilots are certified under the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore and undergo rigorous training with the police.

When asked about data collection, DSP Sum said the footage may be kept for evidence or use in court, much like a police camera.

"We follow a procedure to purge data once we deem that it is not needed, and we don't keep it unnecessarily unless we have to," he added.

In an interview with ST, Mr Serguei Beloussov, founder and chief research officer of cyber-security firm Acronis, said UAVs can help law enforcement be more efficient and precise.

"Drones allow inspection of different areas... they are better than cameras, which generate a lot of useless data," said Mr Beloussov.

He said a transparent policy on how the drones' data is kept safe is important, adding: "It is important to protect the data so that bad people don't get it."

Mr Beloussov said privacy is an illusion these days as most things that people do can be investigated. He added: "It depends on what you want, do you want privacy or safety? I prefer safety."

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